Telling Lies and Telling Stories:

 It’s an important difference!

I won’t have trouble gaining consensus on the virtue of telling the truth. As kids and teens, many of us told some lies to avoid getting into trouble, or even some tall tales to impress friends. But most of us outgrew that behavior as we developed a conscience, a sense of responsibility, and appreciation for the role of truthfulness and trust in relationships.  

The question is how we help one another be the best we can be.

The question is how we help one another be the best we can be.

However, there are some people who continue to tell lies as adults. Many of us may tell the occasional “white lie,” something innocent or benign when a child is not ready for the “raw” truth or when we are seeking to avoid needlessly hurting someone’s feelings. But that’s not the type of lying that tarnishes the integrity and veracity we associate with good moral character.  

It’s when others seek to deceive us that we begin to question their character. Even then, there are differences in motivation that distinguish malicious lying from what I’d like to call “telling stories.” The malicious lying intends to deceive, manipulate, or otherwise take advantage of others. It’s deliberate and willful. Telling stories is different. It is motivated by insecurities and needs for approval. 

Intentions and Consequences

We can agree that malicious lying is bad. As described, it is by definition self-serving and intended to exploit others. Telling stories, on the other hand, is a practice that can arise out of fears that one is not good enough or that telling the truth might entail consequences one can’t handle. The major difference, then, is that if the feared consequences are mitigated, the story teller may be able tell the truth. 

I believe this difference is important. And it goes to a distinction between being moral and being moralistic. Being moral in our attitude and orientation toward truth-telling and lying implies evaluating what is good, right, and proper. Being moralistic implies a readiness to find fault and judge others too quickly and without considering mitigating factors that affect their motivations and behavior. 

An Example: The Gambler

A man secretly sought to multiply his savings, which were to go toward a down payment on a home for him and his fiancé, by gambling. But he lost and kept losing until his savings were depleted. By the time they had agreed they would begin actively shopping for and purchasing a home, he was forced to tell the truth, which he had withheld from her for almost a year. It threw the couple into a tail spin. 

While working with the couple, it became clear that she was troubled mostly by the fact that he was capable of deceiving her and lying about how the savings were growing. She too had been saving her share. And she said at one point, “He seemed so good at it [i.e., the lying]. It seemed so easy for him to do it. How can I ever trust him again?” That’s what it looked like to her. 

What we soon learned, however, is that inside he was feeling terribly guilty, intensely anxious, afraid that if she found out she would leave him. He could not see a way to discuss his mistakes with her. It was something that simply did not seem discussable to him. He was ashamed, afraid, and felt incompetent to talk this issue through with her.  

Eliminating the Need for Stories

For this couple, discovering what made telling stories feel necessary for him, helped her see his actions and motivations differently. He’d always been less able and ready to express his feelings and examine emotionally charged issues more deeply as compared to her. Instead, he would appear more stone-faced and express readiness to concede an issue in order halt further discussion. 

In the presence of a third party, however, their individual differences in personality, life experience, and openness to engaging in difficult conversations became more discussable. Based on understanding these differences and how they affect their communications, they were able to learn how to navigate these kinds of conversations more effectively.  

They came to see that their most important operating principle was a commitment to creating the conditions that promote truth-telling. By focusing on these conditions, they found that it also made it easier for them to raise issues sooner, to deal with issues on a timelier basis, knowing that it would never be quite as difficult to work through them as it might initially seem.  

The Nature and Nurture of Kindness

An Essay on the Ethics of Relating to Others

I raise the subject of kindness in the context of moral motivation and social relations. We often hear people minimize or dismiss the role of kindness as a consideration that is naïve, like “being nice.” Thus, even when kindness is accepted as a positive quality in social life, it can be seen as secondary to self-interest as a basic or natural source of motivation.  

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun…  Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun… Robert Frost

As with many aspects of human nature, there may be some truth to this appraisal of kindness and other motivations that are grounded in moral emotions. So, I’ll begin by briefly examining motivation and how emotion and reason play a role in its mature expression. We’ll then consider some traditional sources of wisdom on this topic before closing with practical implications.  

The implications I refer to concern our natural potentials to cultivate moral motivations. We can trace this line of thought to ancient Greece and Roman Stoicism. It then emerges again in Italy, France, and Britain in the Enlightenment era. Because this moral philosophy and psychology predates modern psychology, it avoids some of the narrowing that occurs with modern moral psychology. 

A Question of Moral Emotions & Motivation

What is it that motivates people to behave the way they do? Whether conscious or unconscious, what is it that moves us to act as we do? If we say there are reasons for our actions, does that mean that our motivations are purely rational? Isn’t the energy that moves us emotional? As it concerns social relations and interactions, which comes first, emotion or reason? And what about free will?  

About Emotion

Plato and Socrates in 5th century B.C. Greece and Buddha Gautama at about the same time in Central Asia were independently exploring pathways to enlightenment. They cautioned us about how emotions (“the passions”) can overwhelm our rational or “wise” mind, blocking our access to enlightenment.  

This theme recurs in Western philosophy, leading to an ideal of rationality in the modern period and to a mistrust of emotion and intuitive (nonscientific) modes of knowing. Etymology reveals more about how the meaning of words evolve to express the phenomena that we seek to designate and signify:  

emotion (n.) In the 1570s, "a (social) moving, stirring, agitation," from Middle French émotion (16c.), from Old French emouvoir "stir up" (12c.), from Latin emovere "move out, remove, agitate." Sense of "strong feeling" is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

We see in this historical usage of the word “emotion” how it is believed to play a role in motivation by stirring us, moving us to act. It manifests in less rational and conscious form as impulsivity. But feelings can also become the focus of conscious reflection. Its motivating effects are then rationally mediated. The emotional “data” of experience call for our attention, and we then become free to consider them: “What’s going on? Something is feeling important, urgent. Something is at stake.”  

This mediated form of emotional meaning yields the “reasons of the heart” that Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) had in mind: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” In the course of reflecting upon these felt reasons, we can find ways to express them in words. We may try out or “play with” a variety of words and find those that best capture the sense of what we mean. In that way, we bring our felt experience into rational deliberations on action.     

About Motivation

There’s been a tendency in modern times under the influence of Thomas Hobbes (English, 1588-1679) and his moral psychology of egoism to explain away kindness, arguing that it’s not an original or natural moral emotion and source of motivation. Instead, this theory insists that there must be self-interested motives at work that explain acts of kindness. This egoistic psychology was the basis for the modern definition of “rational economic man” so popular in economics.   

But others, including Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Anthony Cooper (the Earl of Shaftesbury 1671-1713), both of whom were influenced by Stoic philosophy, recognized kindness as a moral emotion that is cultivated and fundamental to our social nature as persons. Thus, kindness is a matter of both nature and nurture. It’s in our nature to be social, to want and to seek attachment, even to care so much about those we love that we place their interests above our own. And our social nature must be nurtured.  

kindness - having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others: wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

kindness (n.) In c. 1300, "courtesy, noble deeds," from kind (adj.) + -ness. Meanings "kind deeds; kind feelings; quality or habit of being kind" are from late 14c. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Vico, drawing upon Stoic philosophers, characterized our moral emotions and our cultivated social values as rising from a sensus communis. Sensus communis was understood to be a natural attunement to what is morally good, right, and proper. Drawing upon Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) called this a moral sense. It is a sense that is not reducible to any or all of the five senses of perception; rather, it’s specific to our inborn potential for beneficence, a social virtue.  

Hutcheson was critical of Hobbes and his ilk for encouraging the belief that we are only capable of acting out of self-interest. Hutcheson argued that just as we must cultivate our rational capabilities, so we must also cultivate our moral sense. To discourage such moral development by promoting an egoistic psychology and depending solely on the coercive force of laws and punishment to wrest control of baser motives is to give up on our natural potentials to become free and responsible moral agents.   

Even Adam Smith, a student of Hutcheson and the father of capitalism, never believed that market forces and self-interest are sufficient to realizing a good society. He assumed that we must also draw upon our moral sense (“sympathy”) to inform our actions and achieve a life of virtue. Indeed, these moral ideals of freedom and equality are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.  

Practical Considerations

Feelings matter and words matter. Those are two practical consequences of the foregoing discussion of moral emotions and motivation. They inform our practices in two important ways. First, we must have patience and appreciation for attending to our feelings and hearing what they have to say. Second, we must reciprocate that attentiveness through dialogue, which is intended to yield mutual understanding.  

But dialogue is about more than understanding one another’s individual, subjective feelings and thoughts. It involves discovering how a discussion of our experiences of a common situation spawn a larger whole, a further truth. In that way, dialogue is what allows us to arrive at a something greater than either of us would have arrived at absent dialogue.  

This quality of understanding is what Vico would characterize as eloquence – not just “pretty words” or a plausible narrative, but an articulation of the situation that is truer and more adequate to inform our actions. It requires that both participants are of good moral character, that their intentions are good, that they feel a duty to arrive at an enlightened understanding upon which to base action.

Finding the Words

In the moments that we experience the strongest feelings, the most desperate needs to be understood, we can struggle to find words adequate to our situation and purposes. It’s a common theme at home and at work, in intimate relationships and with those with whom we must get along in the workplace.

And a vital insight is noticing just how much cross-over there is between the demands of interpersonal communications at home and at work. Admittedly, they may cue different attitudes, emotions, actions, and expectations because we define them as separate sectors of life and apply different norms. We may even find virtue in maintaining a near-hermetically sealed barrier to keep them separate.

However, what I would like you to consider is how the challenge of finding the words and cultivating social-emotional fluency gives us reason to leverage this interpersonal cross-over to promote and to accelerate our development.  

We must learn from our quarrels and differences. That is what distress is telling us, that we need to learn about ourselves and how to better communicate.

We must learn from our quarrels and differences. That is what distress is telling us, that we need to learn about ourselves and how to better communicate.

Feeling Stuck, Finding the Words

Whether we are feeling captive to an emotional storm of anger (reactive/defensive tendencies) or overwhelmed with sadness, hurt and confusion (passivity and felt helplessness), we can find ourselves at a loss for words adequate to any constructive purpose. We may, in the case of anger, be tempted to spit expletives and bristle with intense frustration. Or we may, with sadness, simply go quiet.  

I believe we can agree that neither of these reactions express the meaning of our experience to another person whom we have reason to care about and want as intimate partner or a committed colleague. So, what do we do? How do we find ways to connect, communicate, and nurture these relationships?

First, recall that we’re talking about an interpersonal situation. It implies felt needs to communicate with another person. It also suggests that we may need to use the relationship to fix the relational problems.

So, how do we help one another find the words? They must be the right words, and they must be the right words for him or her, words that express with greatest accuracy and completeness the felt meaning he/she wishes to convey. This suggests a need to respect the other person’s agency and individuality as a person.

It’s Adumbrational: Trying Out Words

To adumbrate, in this context, means to signify in words gradually, progressively, and iteratively the felt sense of something we’ve experienced. Knowing full well that no one word or series of words will be wholly adequate, we must try out words and word pictures that express our experience enough for an attentive listener to get a better sense of what we’re feeling, what’s motivating our behavior.

Especially in the case of angry and frustrated emotions, it important to for us to suspend judgment and to not make too much of any one word spoken. Each of us will choose different words; it’s the overall meaning that is critical. If we are the listening party, our role is to allow the breathing space for the other to do this trying-out of words:

I think I felt threatened, rushed, frustrated, misunderstood, and then just overwhelmed. I began grasping for words and ways to fight back. I just couldn’t stand your persistence and continuing to argue. It felt like the fighting would never end. I felt ready to scream and put my fist through the wall…

And I know that is not what you intended, not what you were trying to make me feel. It’s just so hard for me to function when things get that hot. I just wish we could stop!

The Breathing Space

The listening party really does not need to say anything while this trying-out process proceeds. And it could all be occurring with n 15-30 seconds. It’s amazing how quickly, given the right conditions, we can deescalate our emotions and gain a sense of calm sufficient to find words to express what we’re feeling.

Now, at this point, we are better able to see each other as two persons each with our subjective center of experience. Soon, too, we come to appreciate that we each bring a historically distinct and dispositionally shaped set of individual differences to how we interpret and respond to interpersonal situations.

The breathing space is an act of care that humanizes us. It makes it safe for us as persons to make our experience known without the need to justify our feelings. When we reciprocate this practice, we become more able to be there for one another as a safe and helpful presence.

Helping One Another Through Conflict

A Practice for Couples - Also for Friends & Colleagues

Introduction

We each of have dispositional tendencies and learned reactions to rising tensions and conflict. In some families, we may have learned that energetic disagreements are okay, even stimulating and productive. They can be contained and include norms of mutual respect. In other families, conflict signals danger. Even modest levels of rising tension may arouse visceral feelings of foreboding and fear.

The point is that we each bring learned responses to the onset of conflict. And the kind of conflict I have in mind here is verbal, not something that involves abusive behavior or violence. It’s the kind of conflict that emerges periodically in the interactions of many if not most relationships, especially between partners. It’s the conflict that often brings people into couple’s therapy.  

It’s about being willing to get to know one another again for the first time!

It’s about being willing to get to know one another again for the first time!

Framing the Problem

Episodes of rising tension can culminate in intense conflict that cause us to feel hurt and angry. Later, after the fireworks are over, one or both of us suffer feelings of regret and frustration that we aren’t able to handle conflict differently, better: “Why does it have to devolve into harsh words, name-calling, words I wish I could take back, damage to a relationship that is so important to me?”

Framing the Solution

We can examine how we jointly contribute to the problem by virtue of what we each bring to the situation. It may be that one person becomes particularly aggressive in tone and words – or gets there first. And that person may be labeled as the one with “issues.” But these combustible events occur in the context of a relationship. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to start and sustain a fight.     

A Plan for Change

What if we made the “systemic assumption” that our chronic patterns of conflict involve contributions from both of us? What if we together, with the assistance of a couple’s therapist, adopted an attitude of curiosity about how we are different dispositionally and behaviorally with respect to our reactions to rising tensions and conflict? What are our triggers and when and how are they sparked, activated?

What’s the course of our interactions that culminates in growing tension? Are there ways we could notice it earlier and prevent escalation into a hot zone of reactivity, an emotional storm? And if we did that, how could we use that moment of reflective pause to make good choices? Are there certain preferred ways of being spoken to that make it easier for us to evoke the moment of noticing?

My experience is that it’s better to practice these changes first in lower-risk situations. In so doing, it is important to be mindful that it is for the sake of learning. Each participant in the learning process must have a voice and feel free to initiate the intervention. It’s not a competition. It doesn’t matter who starts it, what matters is how we work together to create and navigate the reflective pause.

It’s a collaborative competency. Over time, we build confidence and skilled practices. It’s empowering!

A Powerful Interpersonal Model

I have been using the FIRO-B[1] for over 25 years. It’s a questionnaire that provides feedback on three dimensions of interpersonal behavior that are thought to represent basic human needs and sources of motivation (i.e., factors that help explain why we behave the way we do in relationships).

Making relationships work or work better can make life and career much more satisfying.

Making relationships work or work better can make life and career much more satisfying.

The Three Dimensions

Inclusion represents our needs to be a part of something, i.e., an intimate relationship, a family, a friend group, or a work team. We are social animals. [2] We all have some needs for belonging and participation in social life. These needs and motivations manifest in two ways: 1) in our expressed behavior insofar as we invite others to be included, involved, or to participate in something; and 2) in our desires (wanted behavior) to be included, involved, or to participate in something.  

Control represents our needs to take charge, and to shape and influence action and interaction by giving direction (expressed behavior) to others. It also manifests in what we want others to express toward us, i.e., giving direction, providing structure, guiding action, or setting expectations. We all have some inclinations and needs for agency (initiating action) and dominance (asserting control). When our expressed and wanted needs for control are both low, it may reveal a desire for independence.

Affection represents our needs for warmth, intimacy, acceptance, and sensitivity. As with the other dimensions, our expressed affection may register differently than our wanted affection. We may have a lower level of expressed affection, a more reserved, emotionally controlled style, while having a much higher wanted affection level. High wanted levels in affection and inclusion can moderate expressed control, due to our concerns with alienating others, putting needs for inclusion and affection at risk.

Interpretation and Practical Relevance

In the course of describing the three dimensions, we can already recognize that they interact and affect one another in the person of any individual. If we consider the basic stages of joining in relationship with others – the movement from dependence to independence to interdependence – we can see that our needs and tendencies across these three dimensions will affect our ease/difficulty in the joining process.

There is a natural tendency for most people regardless of their dispositional tendencies, as measured on the FIRO-B, to err on the side of being more polite and considerate in the early stage of meeting others. As the relationship becomes more established, our differences will usually manifest with less concern for politeness. Some tensions and working-through of differences may yield a state of interdependence.

Of course, that is a normal, adaptive experience and outcome. But it may not play out so easily in some relationships. Indeed, an asymmetry of power may prevail. And their may be misalignments of inclusion and affection preferences. Such maladaptive outcomes may arise in a crisis or under conditions of stress. However, they may also become chronic patterns that leave us feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.

Fixing Relationships

What you should know is that relationship issues seen through the lens of the FIRO-B become more amenable to resolution. Chronic patterns of maladaptive behavior can take on a sense of fixity or permanence, which can lead to resignation. And the longer we allow this to prevail, the more hopeless and helpless we can become about making change.

But the truth is that where there is a “will” (a good reason to make it work, and a commitment to doing the work), there is a way. And it is for this reason that tools like the FIRO-B have been developed. They generate “data,” which, when patiently examined by individual, couples, or groups, can stimulate hope. Of course, having someone facilitate this process is essential. Why? Let me briefly explain.

The facilitator, a psychologist or coach, creates a level playing field. He or she ensures that everyone has an equal voice, that all the possibilities are considered, and poses working hypotheses to be tested. We separate discovery and the search for meaning (curious mind) from evaluation and prescription (judging mind). We notice where and how we miss the mark on interdependence and how that might be changed.

NOTES:

[1] FIRO-B stands for Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior.

[2] This is something observed by Aristotle in ancient Greece when he was writing about human psychology, ethics, and politics. Indeed, Socrates (5th century BC) chose death (taking hemlock) over being exiled from the Greek polis (Athens) because he could not conceive of living a truly human life in isolation from society.